Christmas TV isn’t all about repeats this year (starting with Doctor Who)
Show Hide image

What to watch on TV this Christmas

Children get the best TV this year, says Rachel Cooke.

The annual story about Christmas repeats so beloved of our tabloid press came with an extra twist this year when Danny Cohen, the BBC’s director of television, “fought back” on Twitter, accusing the journalists who trot out this line about laziness. “BBC schedules full of amazing shows this Christmas,” he wrote, before having a good go at the Mirror, which had insisted that 63 per cent of the BBC’s festive output this year would consist of repeats. Crikey, I thought, as I followed all this. Cohen is right to defend the BBC. If he won’t, why should anyone else? But I felt the fear, too. No one loves the “TV’s Christmas reheats” story the way the Daily Mail does. His wife might like to consider giving him a hard hat and a flak jacket this holiday season.

Still, Cohen can take heart from being (more or less) right. Naturally, ITV has asked Julian Fellowes to dial in a Downton Abbey special, and he has obliged with an episode in which Lord Sinderby invites his new daughter-in-law, Rose, and her awful relatives up to Northumberland to shoot Lord Grantham . . . sorry, I mean grouse (Christmas Day, 9pm). But this, alas, is pretty much it from ITV when it comes to delivering the sorts of shows – comforting and more than a little camp – in front of which Britain’s middle classes are apt to flop with their Crabbie’s ginger wine and chocolate brazils. By contrast, BBC1 not only has Doctor Who (Christmas Day, 6.15pm) and Call the Midwife (Christmas Day, 7.50pm), but the return of Sally Wainwright’s brilliant Last Tango in Halifax (28 December, 9pm) as well as Mapp and Lucia, an adaptation by Steve Pemberton of E F Benson’s divinely funny novels (about two competitively snobbish spinsters in 1930s Rye), starring Anna Chancellor, Miranda Richardson and the biggest set of dentures since Dick Emery’s vicar (29 December, 9.05pm). Of course, I accept that you may not be in a camp mood. Sloe gin and too many Quality Street may simply have increased your misanthropy exponentially – in which case, tune in to Wallander (BBC4, Boxing Day, 9pm), the very first Swedish version of Henning Mankell’s first Wallander novel. This is its British premiere.

For children, there comes an embarrassment of riches in the form of The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm, Charlie Higson’s adaptation of Norman Hunter’s much-loved book (BBC1, Christmas Eve, 8.30pm; Harry Hill stars); The Boy in the Dress, an adaptation of David Walliams’s adorable novel (BBC1, Boxing Day, 6.55pm); and Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot (BBC1, New Year’s Day, 6.30pm), in which Judi Dench and Dustin Hoffman bring Quentin Blake’s illustrations to life.

Ditto for culture vultures: on Christmas Day BBC4 will screen the Royal Ballet’s Winter’s Tale (7pm) and on 20 December Jeremy Paxman plays Santa (or something) in Christmas University Challenge (BBC2, 8.35pm; the novelist Jonathan Coe is among those taking part). Less highbrow, but twice the fun – like Michael Frayn gone wrong – will be Panto! Mayhem, Make-up and Magic (BBC4, 22 December, 9.25pm), in which a documentary team goes backstage at the Nottingham Arts Theatre as it attempts to stage a Christmas show on a budget of £600. That Day We Sang (BBC2, Boxing Day, 9pm) is Victoria Wood’s TV version of her own musical. Set in Manchester in 1929 and 1969, it tells the story of middle-aged Enid and Tubby as they attend a reunion of the choir in which they sang as children. Imelda Staunton plays Enid and Michael Ball is Tubby, which will be recommendation enough for anyone who saw them in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. On the subject of singing, I also commend The Kid in the Middle, a documentary about Sammy Davis Jr (BBC4, 21 December, 9pm).

Finally: comedy, which has a distinctly valedictory air this year. Man Down, Greg Davies’s batty sitcom about a disaster-prone teacher called Dan, will struggle on without Rik Mayall (who played Dan’s father) in a one-off seasonal special on 23 December (Channel 4, 10pm), and Miranda Hart will say goodbye to the character that made her a household name on BBC1 on Christmas Day (7.15pm) and New Year’s Day (8pm). James Corden’s caper The Wrong Mans, which styles itself as a comedy-drama but seems mostly to want to make us smile, returns to BBC2 on 22 December (9pm), and I don’t expect we’ll see it again for some time, if ever, given that its star is off to host a network chat show in the US.

Toodle-pip, then, to all three. Or, as Mapp and Lucia would have it: au reservoir for now. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

©HOLBURNE MUSEUM. THE FITZWILLIAM MUSEUM, CAMBRIDGE.
Show Hide image

A sketchy legacy? How Pieter's sons kept Brand Bruegel going

For all his business acumen, Pieter the Younger was no original and his skill was weedy compared to the robustness of his father’s.

One of the many complications that make the Bruegels the most confusing clan in art is the letter H. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the founder of the dynasty and its greatest artist, was the painter of such celebrated works as The Hunters in the Snow (1565) and The Tower of Babel (1563). Contrary to the elegance and elevating tenets of the Italian Renaissance, he made the peasant life of the Low Countries his subject, in all its scatological, rambunctious and therefore human detail. In 1559 he dropped the H in his surname and started signing in Roman capital letters – Brueghel becoming the rather more stately Bruegel.

Bruegel had two sons, Pieter and Jan, aged four and one at the time of his death in 1569. Both became painters, too, and as their careers took off Pieter the Younger reinstated the H his father had discarded (though in later life, to add to the disorder, he reversed the order of the U and E) and it remained the moniker of the innumerable painting Brueghels who followed. Rather more confusing than this alphabet jiggery-pokery, though, is the sheer number of painters in the dynasty – some 15 blood relations over the course of 150 years, before a plethora of apprentices, collaborators and intermarriages is factored in.

It is partly to unknot this family tree that the Holburne Museum is running “Bruegel: Defining a Dynasty”, a small but choice exhibition of about thirty pictures that show the distinctiveness of the leading family members. What makes the ­early-generation Bruegels worth looking at in detail is that each was significant in a different way.

The geographer Abraham Ortelius wrote of Pieter the Elder: “That he was the most perfect painter of his age, no one – unless jealous, envious or ignorant of his art – could ever deny.” For all the earthiness of his peasant subjects and their rural pastimes, he was collected by the richest of Antwerp’s merchants, by the Spanish governor general of the Netherlands, Archduke Ernst, and by the Holy Roman emperor himself, Rudolf II in Prague. His patrons recognised that he was no mere Hieronymus Bosch derivative but a highly innovative artist (candlelit interiors, snow scenes, landscapes) whose depictions of human folly mixed the comedic with the serious, but nevertheless contained the belief that wisdom and virtue were the means for redemption.

When Bruegel died, his two sons were trained in painting by their maternal grandmother, Mayken Verhulst, an accomplished miniaturist in her own right, and came of age at a time of Bruegel mania, when there just weren’t enough of their father’s pictures left to go round. There are only three Bruegel the Elders in the whole of Britain, and the National Gallery has lent its Adoration of the Kings (1564) to the show, the first time in a century it has left Trafalgar Square.

Pieter the Younger set out to milk the market and painted large quantities of copies of his father’s most popular works by using the original preparatory cartoons – scale drawings with holes pricked around the figures, which, when dusted with charcoal, would transfer the outlines to a panel beneath. The resulting pictures were very saleable Bruegels by Brueghel: he painted 45 versions of his father’s Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap, 25 of The Peasant Lawyer, and 31 of the 100 existing versions of the riotous Wedding Dance in the Open Air. There’s a lot of Pieter the Younger about.

For all his business acumen, Pieter the Younger was no original and his skill was weedy compared to the robustness of his father’s. It was the second son, Jan “Velvet” Brueghel, who was an artistic pioneer. Nature was his topic and although he, too, repurposed his father’s peasant scenes in his work, as in A Flemish Fair (1600), he shrank the goings-on to make them merely an incident within a diaphanous landscape, rather than the main subject.

Jan painted works of great refinement in oil on copper rather than wood, and also developed the genre of pictures of vases of flowers of kaleidoscopic colour that then became such a popular strand of 17th-century Dutch art. He also frequently worked with collaborators, usually figure painters such as Rubens (who was godfather to at least one of his children), realising that a joint Brueghel-Rubens painting was worth more than one by himself alone.

To add to the mix, one of Jan’s daughters, Anna, married the Golden Age genre painter David Teniers, while another, Paschasia, married into the van Kessel family – their offspring becoming popular for their miniature paintings of insects and plants.

What emerges from this tangled genealogy is that though talent ran in the family, it did so unevenly: Pieter the Younger was a pretty competent painter, Jan a good one, but Pieter the Elder had a genius his descen­dants never got close to matching.

Runs until 4 June. More details: holburne.org

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times